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Making the most of your team’s combined talents 

Published 29 February 2024 in Talent • 6 min read

For research-based, actionable advice on team talent management, look to these professors’ complementary insights.

Teaming up to talk talent, IMD professors Zhike Lei and Patrick Reinmoeller share insights to optimize inputs (I), processes (P), and outcomes (O) – the IPO model – at work.

First, think about the big “I” – the composition of your team

Patrick Reinmoeller:

I’m coming at the topic of managing team talent by looking at the top management team and what’s known as the upper echelon theory. To put it simply, we find the organization as a whole mirrors what’s seen in the top management team. For example, if a highly aggressive egomaniac is in the CEO’s chair, the organization will unfortunately reflect that. If the C-suite and board are both filled with financial minds, we’ll find an organization that looks only at numbers. If it’s all marketing up top, they’ll be focused on advertising. This is obviously simplified to make the basic point that team composition matters. We want to have our top talent come from different disciplines with different experiences so that, together, they can analyze the strategic environment better. A diverse team can come up with more alternative solutions that are then discussed, selected, and implemented.

Professionalize to optimize results

Patrick Reinmoeller:

Absolutely. Innovation is one thing and financial performance is another. Leaders have a range of performance objectives they need to meet to keep stakeholders happy. In the past, “profits” might have been enough. But now we are strategizing to keep “people” and “planet” in mind for the triple bottom line. Suddenly, with sustainability (including carbon targets), geopolitical concerns, and AI, the top management team has much more on its plate than ever before. So, how do we deal with all of this? I see that the degree of professionalization of the top teams needs to skyrocket.

Today’s leaders must be more open to exploring new things and exploiting what they have discovered more quickly, with sharper focus. This requires personal discipline. And it also brings us back to the input – the I in IPO. Personalities are relatively stable over time, but we know that training makes a world of difference. We learn. We can teach an introvert to behave like an extrovert when needed or an extrovert to quiet down. With strategic talent solutions and training in ambidexterity, we can broaden our horizons. As the bar has been raised dramatically for the top management team, more discipline and training are required.

My research – and that of my colleagues – indicates that ambidextrous thinking and being authentic is critical. We find that, at the top management level, it’s essential that the team as a whole is open to, generating and considering enough transformative ideas. Not everyone is going to stand out as a top star. That’s not the point. It’s the combination of talents that makes the magic happen.

“Fostering psychological safety emerges as a cornerstone for team performance.”
— Zhike Lei, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior

Don’t forget to leverage team skills through processes

Zhike Lei:

Patrick’s astute observation regarding team composition really resonates with me. In my line of research studying team dynamics, the IPO model – which, by the way, has nothing to do with finance – serves as a guiding framework. IPO stands for Input, Process, and Outcome – the three main parts of this model. In this sense, Patrick’s insights address the big “I” of team diversity and talent.

Here, I aim to advance the discussion to the subsequent pivotal component of the model – the “P” for process. Ideally, we aspire to curate the optimal blend of talent within a team, but practical constraints frequently render this endeavor challenging. So, the emphasis on team processes may take on added importance. We want to train the team to become better at relating to each other and collaborating through a synergetic process.

The good news is that recent team research is advancing our understanding of effective processes. Usually, we need to focus on three types of team processes. First, teams need to establish task processes through which team members’ work roles and responsibilities are defined, clarified, and agreed upon. Second, a significant portion of team endeavors are dedicated to nurturing relationships and adeptly managing interpersonal conflicts. These are what we refer to as relational processes. Among these, fostering psychological safety emerges as a cornerstone for team performance. This perspective has been underscored by findings from Google’s Project Aristotle and by my joint work with Amy Edmondson on psychological safety.

Teamwork inherently involves emotional labor. Recall the last instance when a conflict between two team members escalated; emotions invariably took center stage. If managing teams were purely rational, managers would have it easy. Therefore, high-performing teams often excel in the third type of team processes – emotional processes. Emerging research delves into the phenomenon of emotional contagion, offering some promising insights. For instance, leaders are encouraged to cultivate and sustain a positive team climate with rapport, inclusion, hope, and other positive emotions.

Together with psychological safety and contagious positivity, we need to go a step further and remember to emphasize accountability. “Psychological safety” does not guarantee everything else magically falls into place. Leaders have to hold team members accountable for achieving and staying focused on outcomes – the “O” of IPO. This means performing, learning, adapting, and innovating.

Emulate dream teams

Zhike Lei:

I couldn’t agree more. It’s like we say: to make teamwork dream work, we need a star team, not a collection of individual stars. And although we’ve been speaking about the top management team, we can apply this across various teams at work.

In today’s ever-changing, fast-paced business environment, we should encourage teaming skills, another part of the process (again, back to the “P” in IPO). Teaming skills necessitate that team members adapt and collaborate seamlessly on the fly, even without the luxury of conventional team-building exercises. These skills are pivotal in discerning when to showcase our talents and when to open up the opportunity for others to shine. This notion is highlighted in classic organizational research I love on British String Quartets, where the training is very structured, without a conductor. In quartets’ highly cohesive teams, they communicate, resolve conflicts, and make decisions with mutual respect and shared goals. In the corporate world, similarly, we all bring our expertise to the table and carry out complementary functions.

We can also learn from successful jazz musicians. By approaching the music with formal training and a shared understanding of goals, we see a highly intentional warm-up to enable new combinations of musicians to work together quickly and effectively. We see them rotate leading roles. We see excellent teaming skills.

Patrick Reinmoeller:

Yes. This is important. Ideally, the time it takes to warm up, especially under pressure, needs to be as short as possible. How quickly can we get ourselves into the zone? In a high-stakes meeting, with only 30 minutes, a quick warm-up to optimal functioning as a team is so important.

Implement personalized career management

Another note to hit regarding the management of teams is helping people progress throughout their careers, starting young. We want to see junior staffers who need help connecting with their colleagues get that training. We want to see talent development to help people acquire the capabilities they need to successfully take the next steps in their careers. That’s where increasingly personalized strategic talent solutions will play a significant role in the future.


Zhike Lei

Zhike Lei

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior, IMD

Zhike Lei is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior. She is an award-winning organizational scholar and an expert on psychological safety, team dynamics, organizational learning, error management, and patient safety. Lei studies how organizations, teams, and employees adapt and learn in complex, time-pressured, consequence-laden environments. As a global management educator, she has taught executives and PhD, DBA, EMBA, and MBA candidates, as well as undergraduates, and has won numerous teaching awards and recognitions.

Patrick Reinmoeller - IMD Professor

Patrick Reinmoeller

Professor of Strategy and Innovation at IMD

Patrick Reinmoeller has led public programs on breakthrough strategic thinking and strategic leadership for senior executives, and custom programs for leading multinationals in fast moving consumer goods, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and energy on developing strategic priorities, implementing strategic initiatives, and managing change. More recently, his work has focused on helping senior executives and company leaders to build capabilities to set and drive strategic priorities.


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